Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesleyan Way #11 ©

Reclaiming a Doctrine of Salvation

 Last week Dr. Lisa Neslony, West District Superintendent in the Central Texas Conference, wrote in a perceptive email, “What if Christians sought the spiritually lost the way volunteers have been seeking people in Southeast Texas? And why don’t we? Maybe we don’t really believe people are threatened by a spiritual death that is as real as water rising all around you. It struck me Tuesday when I listened to the radio on my way west that some people had refused being ‘saved’ (the broadcaster’s word) on Monday but were begging to be saved Tuesday. I have to admit that sometimes I give up on people. But I am overwhelmed with the conviction that I should offer the saving grace of Jesus Christ to all I meet as many times as it takes so people can experience God’s salvation.”

In Reclaiming the Heart of the Wesley Way #10, I wrote on the concept of grace and noted carefully that an understanding of grace is ultimately tied to a doctrine of salvation. Thus at the heart of the Wesleyan Way is a rock solid conviction that the offer of salvation is for all! Ironically, the mainline Christian core has migrated from a battle over salvation for the elect only vs salvation as available to all (through not all are saved!), to a loose conviction that in some vague way everyone is saved. Often this theological fuzziness is confused even further by an understanding of salvation that is truncated into the simplistic (and false notion) of just getting into heaven.

In his great sermon “The Scriptural Way of Salvation” preaching on the text of Ephesians 2:8 (“Ye are saved through faith”), John Wesley famously noted: “The salvation which is here spoken of is not what is frequently understood by that word, the going to heaven, eternal happiness. . . . It is not something at a distance: it is a present thing, a blessing which, through the free mercy of God, ye are now in possession of. . . . So that the salvation which is here spoken of might be extended to the entire work of God, from the first dawning of grace in the soul till it is consummated in glory” (John Wesley, “The Scriptural Way to Salvation,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 2, Sermons II, 34-70, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 156). So too, in Sermon I of Wesley’s collection of sermons (which formed a theological backbone of Methodism) Wesley connected salvation with grace and faith (again preaching on Ephesians 2:8) in a way that great clarity. “Grace is the source, faith the condition, of salvation” (John Wesley, “Salvation by Faith,” The Works of John Wesley, Volume 1, Sermons I, 1-33, Edited by Albert C. Outler, p. 118).

In his marvelous book Who Will Be Saved? (which I heartily recommend!) Bishop William Willimon draws the connection tight. “Although celebration of humanity is the dominant, governmentally sanctioned story, it is not the story to which Christians are accountable. It is the conventional North American story that, at every turn, is counter to the gospel. Thus we begin by noting that there are few more challenging words to be said by the church than salvation. Salvation implies that there is something from which we need to be saved, that we are not doing as well as we presume, that we do not have the whole world in our hands and that the hope for us is not of our devising. . . . To be sure, Scripture is concerned with our eternal fate. What has been obscured is Scripture’s stress on salvation as invitation to share in a particular God’s life here, now, so that we might do so forever. Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation. Salvation isn’t just a question of who is saved and who is damned, who will get to heaven and how, but also how we are swept up into participation in the mystery of God who is Jesus Christ” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p. 3).

Consider further that if the source of salvation is grace, God’s radically free unmerited love poured out for us on the cross of Christ, then a critical element of love is that it cannot be forced. Forced grace is a contradiction in terms. If it is forced, it isn’t grace! We either lean forward and say to God, “thy will be done,” or lean back and hear the Lord whisper in our ears, “all right then, have it your way.” (This phrase is not original to me but I do not recall the original source.) Hell is both real and of our own choice and making. It hinges on the critical decision of whether Jesus is truly the Lord of our life. It is about much more than simply saying the magic words of profession or passing off allegiance to Christ as mere intellectual assent. To be sure grace abounds, but is never cheap nor is it easy.

We have waded too long in the shallow pool of indulgent self-preference. The one who hangs on the cross for us and rises from death in triumph will not be content with a rotting sentimentality spread so thinly over 21st century hedonism. Hung over self-indulgent sentimentality cannot stand the gas ovens of the Nazis or the pain of cancer or the clash of our self-will at the expense of God’s created design and desire. Truth was not crucified on the cross. The Way, the Truth, and Life rose triumphant on Easter morning.

Any true notion of Christian salvation is tied inextricably to Jesus Christ. Again Bishop Willimon is on target. “Salvation is literally inconceivable apart from Christ: ‘There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved’ (Acts 4:12). Peter wasn’t speaking to the question of other faiths  – he was testifying before his follow Jews about the Jew, Jesus. . . . If Jesus is, as we believe him to be, as much of God as we ever hope to see, the one who uniquely brought about our at-one-ment with the Father, then we can’t also say that Jesus is only a way, one truth among many, and just another life. Jesus is not simply a great moral example; he is the salvation of God, God’s peculiar, un-substitutable fullness. Jesus’ distinctive way of suffering, sacrificial love, outrageous invitation, and boundary-breaking, government-enraging, relentless seeking – vindicated by surprising, unexpected resurrection – cannot be merged with other means of definitions of salvation” (Bishop William Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, pp. 93-94).

If we are to reclaim the heart of the Wesleyan Way, we cannot neglect the full development and employment of a biblical doctrine of salvation. Much of the muddled thinking about salvation comes from a confusion of the importance of good works as a part of salvation with a vague understanding of cheap grace. For far too long cheap grace has been stirred with the good works of love, justice and mercy in a manner which as produced the bland gruel of shallow “niceness.”  It is time to reclaim (and preach!) a full doctrine of salvation by Christ alone. And all this done in a manner soaked in humble grace at the foot of the cross and next to the open grave.

Professors Scott Kisker and Kevin Watson in their soon to be published book The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation take time to remind us of this cardinal conviction of early Methodism. “British Methodists summarized the distinctive Wesleyan aspects of salvation with the ‘four alls:’

“All need to be saved.
“All can be saved.
“All can know they are saved.
“All can be saved to the uttermost.”

(Taken from The Band Meeting: An Invitation to Intentional Relational Transformation by Scott T. Kisker and Kevin M. Watson, pg. 66 pre-publication copy. Footnote: This summary was developed in the early twentieth century by W. B. Fitzgerald. See W.B. Fitzgerald, The Roots of Methodism (London: The Epworth Press, 1903), 173)

 

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